Ecce homo. The phrase may or may not be familiar to you, you will encounter it in a variety of places, but probably the most obvious is in St John’s Gospel. It is uttered by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect of Judea in the reign of Tiberius and the man responsible for the trial of Jesus. The phrase is used else wherein painting and in literature.
Nietzsche used it as the title of one of his more provocative texts. It is translated as ‘Behold the man’. A poignant statement, given that from Pilate it was used as Jesus stood alone, condemned and in front of him and for Nietzsche it was the precursor to a period of self-examination and reflection in his search for authenticity. So what? How does this amount to anything in our context? Is this phrase at all relevant to what we do?
Well, I think it speaks to the heart of what we do by asking the most fundamental of questions. The phrase was inflected by Primo Levi as the title of one of his accounts of life in the concentration camps; ‘If this is a man’ and Levi’s inflection allows us to think about the phrase more clearly. Now there are many column inches given to the question of what schools are for, I know because in this space I have been responsible for many of them. But I should like to offer three characteristics that address the question of what is a ‘man’ or what ‘ecce homo’ might mean. I do use man here in the most generic sense.
The first is that of competency. Our business is to educate. We facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and through a variety of strategies we orchestrate the growth in competency of our students, the better to understand the world and to develop the capacity for wisdom.
The second is to establish in the minds of each student the facility to understand themselves and through that understanding to be happy in their own skin and grow in confidence. Not least because happy people learn well and that contentment with yourself breeds the confidence to explore and to take risks with learning; by this I mean the ability to try and fail and try again and fail better and so on.
The final aspect is compassion. The competency of understanding and the confidence of self-knowledge and self-worth must lead to caring for the world and the people in it. The virtue of compassion flows from the nature of our existence as humans and may well be explained biologically as a prerequisite for survival in our social groups, nevertheless it is by the degree of our compassion for each other and for those in distress that we define ourselves.
So education, and that in the truest sense ‘educare’, is to ‘lead out’ or ‘tease out’ from each student, and I would add teachers, those truths about themselves that lie within. By these truths I mean the competency each of us has to understand, the confidence each of us needs to grow and the compassion each of us shares. Where we are engaged in these three capacities, we are most true to ourselves. We live authentically and as such become more human.
As Easter approaches, the question or statement that Pilate mentioned can become ours, Nietzsche’s rhetoric can be reshaped for each of us and the events of the world and our place in it invites us to consider: Ecce Homo?
Mr Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School